These St. Paul athletes are making girls soccer more diverse

Soccer player Oo Meh, 18, practices futsal with other teammates.
Like A Girl soccer player Oo Meh, 18, practices futsal with other teammates at Rice Street Recreation Center in St. Paul on May 7, 2018.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

They gather in hardscrabble parks, organize their own soccer tournaments and trade high-fives after every goal scored.

But as the daughters of immigrants and refugees, they play on a field that is largely invisible to college scouts and the mainstream soccer community.

Girls' soccer — in Minnesota and across the country — is widely seen as a white, suburban sport. The most elite private clubs can charge families thousands of dollars a year for their daughters to participate in top-tier programs. But a new Twin Cities nonprofit is trying to open doors for a more racially diverse set of female athletes who are already embracing the game.

Co-founder of Like A Girl Jennifer Larrick talks to Mariatu Kanu.
Coach and co-founder of Like A Girl, Jen Larrick, left, talks to Mariatu Kanu, 14, on the bench during practice.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Like a Girl was co-founded by Kyle Johnson, the girls' head coach at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul. As a soccer dad traveling to state high school tournament banquets with his son, he took stock of the top teams in Minnesota and couldn't help but notice a yawning disparity.

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"On the boys' side, it's starting to become a bit more diverse," said Johnson. "But on the girls' side, there's no diversity at all."

He paired up with Jen Larrick, a former University of Minnesota soccer player who was raised in the world of elite youth soccer in suburban Boston. Before she showed up to help Johnson coach girls at the St. Paul high school, she knew they didn't play year-round club soccer, so she expected a lower skill of play. She was astounded by what she saw.

Coach Kyle Johnson films Hser Ku Wah, 15, during futsal practice.
Coach Kyle Johnson films Hser Ku Wah, 15, during futsal practice.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"They were just unbelievable," Larrick recalled. "They could do everything I ask them to do. I was blown away. And I was trying to rack my brain, like, how did they get so good? How did they get so skilled at soccer?"

What Larrick learned was that these girls played all the time in their own cultural leagues in their Latino and ethnic Karen communities — a realm generally overlooked by the broader soccer community.

"There's this fantastic and beautiful vibrant urban ecosystem of girls' soccer made up of community and cultural teams and leagues that the girls form themselves," she said. "They coach their own teams and they run their own tournaments. My prior experience didn't allow me to conceive of that reality at all."

She saw not only the diversity of the players, but the diversity in their play. Confronted with limited field space, these girls put a premium on shorter passes and quick footwork rather than a more structured style commonly found in club soccer.

Coach Kyle Johnson made multiple stops to pick up Like A Girl team members.
After making multiple stops to pick up Like A Girl team members, coach Kyle Johnson, left, and players arrive at Rice Street Recreation Center for their weekly futsal practice on May 7, 2018, in St. Paul.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Larrick met athletes like Diana Rodriguez, 16, who was born in Mexico and raised in the United States. Rodriguez learned to play soccer on the street with her brothers and cousins.

"I learned how to be creative with the ball — how to just try things," said Rodriguez, who found playing in club soccer much more rigid. "Playing street soccer, you can do it however you want."

Oo Meh, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, started playing in middle school. As an ethnic Karenni born in a Thai refugee camp, she said she was one of the first girls from her community to participate in Karen soccer tournaments dominated by males. Meh eventually formed an all-girls team.

Meh said other Karenni girls might be intimidated to try a new sport in school, particularly if they don't speak English well. And cultural tradition does not encourage girls like her to be rugged and outdoorsy, she said. But she wants to be a role model for other young women.

May Htoo Kyaw, left, 14, receives a congratulatory handshake.
May Htoo Kyaw, left, 14, receives a congratulatory handshake from teammate Mariatu Kanu, right, 14, during futsal practice.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"I love sports because I like to be physical, and it helps my health, too," she said, adding that the exercise helps her relieve stress. "I hope other girls do it, too. If they try it, they will like it."

A diverse mission

The nonprofit Like a Girl aims to support low-income, inner-city girls with whatever they need to stay in the game — whether it's transportation, cleats or dedicated field space. Behind the wheel of his old Toyota Sequoia, Johnson picks up many of them from their homes and apartment complexes on St. Paul's east side and north end every week and drives them to the Rice Street rec center. The draw: a style of indoor soccer known as futsal.

Coaches Kyle Johnson and Jennifer Larrick react to Valentina Millio's goal.
Coaches Kyle Johnson, right, and Jennifer Larrick, center, react after Valentina Millio, 16, scores a goal during practice.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Another goal of the nonprofit is to recognize and celebrate the recreational soccer that is already thriving in diverse communities.

"There's a narrative in this country where everything's overly coached and overly structured, and there's no more pickup any longer," said Johnson, 43, a Vietnamese-born adoptee who decades ago played club and high school soccer in St. Paul. "Well, that's really not the case. We're just not looking in the right spaces."

The intention of Like a Girl is not to funnel players into competitive clubs. "The idea that we must remove the best players and put them in club spaces inherently implies that club is better," Larrick said. "What we're trying to say is, 'No, these spaces are both valid and real. They're just different.'"

But Like a Girl is hoping to shine a light on the athletes in hopes of providing new opportunities for the players, in college and beyond.

Like A Girl team members huddle for a portrait during practice.
Like A Girl team members huddle for a portrait during practice.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

On July 21 and 22, the organization is hosting a college showcase tournament that will be attended by colleges from about 20 colleges and universities.

Cam Stoltz, league commissioner of the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, had never heard of Like a Girl, but he called the concept "brilliant." Top players at the high school level typically started playing much younger through pay-to-play clubs. Not only can the club registration and travel costs be a burden on parents, but so can the time commitment, Stoltz said.

"Mom and Dad getting off work, driving across the Twin Cities to play an hour game — that's a tax on the entire family," said Stoltz, whose organization recently started an outreach program aimed at bringing underrepresented communities into the fold.

College coaches generally recruit standouts on high school teams as well as the Olympic Development Program, which pools some of the best players in the state. Currently, there's little chance that a star on a St. Paul Karen girls' team is going to be noticed by a college scout unless someone helps bridge the gap, said Stoltz.

Diana Rodriguez advances the play against Pa Sad Tit during practice.
Diana Rodriguez, right, 16, advances the play against Pa Sad Tit, left, 17, during practice at the Rice Street Recreation Center.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"They probably have the passion, they probably have the ability, but do they have the exposure?" he said. "How do we expose them to the higher levels so that if they're capable, able and passionate, they'll move on?"

Last summer, after Like a Girl held its first college showcase event, eight girls were offered scholarships. Three of them accepted and went to a community college in Iowa.

Just weeks after the tournament, Coach Kyle Johnson again found himself in the role of the team's driver — this time, hauling his players off to college.

Correction (June 6, 2018): Oo Meh's name was misspelled in a previous photo caption and her ethnicity was incorrectly reported in a previous version of this story. The story has been updated with the correct information.